Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Clayton Kershaw For 2014 MVP

Clayton Kershaw is fighting a battle on two fronts for the NL MVP award. Since pitchers have the CY Young award, voters have been reluctant to vote for pitchers - not only does Kershaw have to best the rest of the NL, he has to best historical trends. I think he will and deserves to do win the award this season.

First, Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet. His numbers this year put him in a class above everyone else, and it’s been a great year for pitchers. Corey Kluber, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale in the AL and Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright in the NL all put up fantastic seasons, and yet Kershaw will win the CY Young unanimously and would in either league. He has the best WHIP, ERA and FIP, of course, but the underlying numbers are there too. Kershaw put up the best strikeout rate in baseball and 7th best walk rate so he did everything he could to avoid balls in play and unnecessary baserunners. He also induced weak contact: 15th best ground ball rate and third best infield fly rate (the best types of contact for a pitcher as they have the greatest correlation to outs). No other pitcher can match this arsenal of strikeouts, control and run-suppressing contact.


Kershaw also stacks up well against the best hitters in the NL. Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Jonathan Lucroy have the best cases among position players, but none of them particularly stand out. On both FanGraphs (7.2) and Baseball Reference (8.0), Kershaw has a comfortable lead in wins above replacement: McCutchen (6.8/6.4), Lucroy (6.3/6.7), Stanton (6.1/6.5). Beyond an adage that pitchers can’t be more valuable than everyday players, there’s no compelling reason not to vote for Kershaw.

Which brings us to the more difficult portion of Kershaw’s candidacy. Historically, Kershaw wouldn’t make the cutoff for pitcher MVP seasons. Twenty-four pitchers have won the MVP award, but only 5 since 1980, so he's operating on a tight scale. Three of those winning seasons are by relievers, which is absurd enough as is. The others belong to Roger Clemens in 1986 and Justin Verlander in 2011. You'll notice some historically great starters missing from that list.

Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000 and Greg Maddux in 1994 and 1995 each had better seasons than Kershaw and neither won the MVP award. Some voters will use that threshold argument, that if those seasons weren’t good enough, Kershaw’s shouldn’t be, but that argument doesn’t hold up except to reinforce inexplicable voting patterns. Part of the reason those guys lost, beyond the entrenched difficulty many voters have selecting pitchers as MVP, was that there were so many hitters with great cases those years. That actually further weakens Kershaw’s case, as the hitting climate is vastly depressed from Maddux’s and Martinez’s primes. You can see this play out in the difference in era-adjusted numbers like ERA+, despite Kershaw’s roughly equal ERA.

I’ve put Kershaw’s numbers in a table with those Maddux and Martinez years. I chose Maddux’s slightly weaker year as 1995 was closer to a full season than 1994 and used 2000 for Pedro, but his 1999 year has better peripherals (including a borderline impossible 1.39 FIP) despite slightly worse superficial numbers. I’ve included a mix of traditional and advanced statistics for your reading pleasure.

Pitcher
Record
ERA
ERA+
IP (GS)
K - BB
FIP
Maddux ‘95
19-2
1.63
260
209.2 (28)
181 - 23
2.26
Martinez ‘00
18-6
1.74
291
217 (29)
284 - 32
2.17
Kershaw ‘14
21-3
1.77
197
198.1 (27)
239 - 31
1.81

Kershaw’s year is great, and certainly the best of his Hall-bound career, but it’s pretty easy to make the argument that it’s doesn’t quite stack up. His ERA is ever so slightly worse, in a much easier environment and stadium for pitchers, and consequently his ERA+ is sterling but not legendary. One could counter that Kershaw’s results are supported by his peripherals (note the small gap between FIP and ERA) where the others out-pitched them (and attribute that to luck, some of which may be true), but FIP is calculated primarily through strikeouts, walks and home runs. It makes sense that Kershaw’s FIP would be lower this year with larger strike zones, escalating strikeouts, and declining league-wide power.

However, Martinez and Maddux aren’t the only precedent Kershaw is up against. All the way back in 2011, Justin Verlander and his flukish win total won MVP with a worse season than Kershaw’s, kicking off one of the longest posts in this blog’s history by an incensed editor in chief.

Pitcher
Record
ERA
ERA+
IP (GS)
K - BB
FIP
Verlander ‘11
24-5
2.40
172
251 (34)
250 - 57
2.99
Kershaw ‘14
21-3
1.77
197
198.1 (27)
239 - 31
1.81

Verlander won the MVP award because of his gaudy win total, and a lot of Verlander’s value is tied up in a number linked with win totals: innings pitched. Verlander threw over 50 more innings in 2011 than Kershaw in 2014, though Verlander bested Kershaw in average innings pitched per start by a scant amount (7.38 to 7.34). Kershaw, though, missed the first month of the season, and threw 7 fewer starts than Verlander in 2011. Instead of weighting the value in the time pitched, we could choose to replace that gap (in either innings or starts) and come up with Kershaw’s rotational value, accounting for the 7 starts he missed. This year, an average starter posted an ERA of between 3.65 and 3.85, so if we add in 53 innings of 3.75 ERA (22 earned runs), Kershaw’s rotation spot ERA becomes 2.19. It’s still better than Verlander’s but the difference is better than halved. Throw in the differences of run scoring environment (and league - Kershaw gets to feast on pitchers instead of DH’s) and that difference becomes even more negligible. I’d still take Kershaw’s season over Verlander’s but it’s closer than on first glance.

So, if Kershaw is marginally better than Verlander was, and not as good as Maddux and Martinez were in unrewarded seasons, why does he deserve MVP? Part of it is the caliber of the other top players, all of whom missed time this season. That may seem unfair, but Dustin Pedroia won MVP in 2008 while fellow 2nd baseman Chase Utley finished 14th in the NL with a superior year (and yes, I lost a $20 bet that Pedroia would never win MVP and yes, I’m still bitter about it). The American League that year was just bereft of superstars who had played and thrived the entire season and someone had to fill the vacuum. It would be unfair to punish Kershaw just because the class at the top was weaker than in other years. 2014 has been Mike Trout’s worst year but the first in which he will presumably win MVP, and if he were in the NL, he probably would win over Kershaw, too. That’s just how these things go.

The other reason is consistency.

Kershaw’s win-loss record of 21-3 will go a long way toward winning him this award, and while wins are mostly useless as predictive statistics, they are an indicative statistic. Kershaw had only one aberrantly bad start, a 7-run drubbing in 1.2 innings by the Diamondbacks on May 17, and essentially a guaranteed loss. (If you stripped out that start, which is admittedly unfair, Kershaw’s ERA drops to 1.44). Nearly every other game, though, Kershaw gave his team a chance to win. All told, he threw 27 starts and only 3 would not have qualified as quality starts (6+ innings, 3 or fewer earned runs). By comparison, Maddux in 1995 had 28/6, Pedro in 2000 had 29/3, and Verlander in 2011 had 34/6. This is slightly reductive and doesn’t account for all those fun year-to-year adjustments, but it shows us that Kershaw kept his team in nearly every game he pitched.

An MVP should be even better than that, though. Quality starts imply that a pitcher kept his team in the game, but an MVP has to be better. He has to be a primary reason a team won the game. Keeping on this overly-simplified theme, we can look to games in which a pitcher went 7 or more innings and allowed 1 or fewer earned runs. Verlander actually leads with 17, followed by Kershaw and Pedro with 15 and Maddux with 12. However, Verlander had 6 games in which he allowed 4 or more earned runs. Pedro and Maddux each have 2 while Kershaw only has the one terrible start. That consistency, mixed with dominance, tilts the scales in Kershaw’s favor. If we gave each of the other three starters the same mulligan we applied to Kershaw (essentially wiping out their worst start), here are their season ERAs: Maddux 1.46, Martinez 1.55, Verlander 2.24. Kershaw, whose ERA was third highest with that start included, drops to the lowest at 1.44. We haven’t accounted for environment, but Kershaw looks even more like Maddux and Martinez using this method.

Kershaw has been unquestionably the best pitcher in baseball, both consistently excellent and historically consistent, and in a league without a standout hitter, he deserves to be the 2014 NL MVP.

1 comment:

  1. I was so incensed.

    Also, I invested that $20 in Crocs back in 2008 and turned it into $300. JK I spent it on pizza.

    ReplyDelete